‘The Night Manager’ Breathes New Life into Mystery TV (TV REVIEW)

[rating=8.00] “Episode 1”

Crime and mystery have taken a steep and steady decline on television in recent years. Recent decades, even. Outside a few bright spots, the genre of mystery has become a breeding ground for endless police procedurals, absent any form of character or cohesion. We could call it a symptom of Law and Order, but the trend stretches back far before it and its endless spinoffs. Which isn’t necessarily meant to denigrate the show or its estimable legacy—I, too, have found myself caught in the grips of a day long marathon session of the Dick Wolf classic, and I more than understand its appeal.

It’s just that its popularity has resulted in countless shows, many of which inspire a series of endless spinoffs themselves, leading us to the point where the genre of mystery has become so watered down and uninspired that shows (and the characters within them) begin to be indistinguishable from each other. But we keep watching the drivel they produce, so they keep making them. We really only have ourselves to blame.

Which is part of the reason why I have such high hopes for The Night Manager. The series, which began its six-episode run on AMC last evening (a year after it premiered on BBC One in the UK), is everything that American crime series currently lack and does everything those same series refuse to do. Leave it to the Brits, of course. Their model for producing television series has long been superior to the American system, and has resulted in countless shows that remain boundary pushing, genre bending, and all around quality, especially in comparison to much of what remains popular on American TV.

The Night Manager is yet another win for the British model of television, and its presence on AMC represents a coup for the network who for years has aspired towards the same level of quality and care as their counterparts across the pond.

The show follows the mild-mannered ex-British soldier/current hotel night manager Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) as he’s pulled deeper and deeper into a web of intrigue and espionage by various guests of his hotels and the intelligence services searching for them. It all starts in Cairo as the “British to the core” Mr. Pine meets the lovely Sophie (Aure Atika). The French-Arab woman hands a series of documents over to the hotelier for photocopying and safekeeping, which sets in motion a series of events that lead to murder, mystery, suspense, and, oh yes, intrigue.

It seems that Sophie’s benefactor/lover Mr. Hamid is involved in an arms deal with the British billionaire/businessman/philanthropist Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). The documents provided to Mr. Pine by Sophie are more than enough proof to hang Roper out to dry on the wire of his on subterfuge, but of course it’s never as simple as that, is it?

No, it never is. As the bureaucracy moves slowly to act on their intelligence, Sophie is put in the line of fire, ending in her murder in the swankest room of Mr. Pine’s fancy Cairo hotel. Four years later, Pine has moved to Switzerland to enjoy a life of solitude away from the politically volatile environs of the Middle East, once again becoming the night manager of a fancy hotel.

It’s here that Roper and his entourage come for a few days of business dealings and relaxation. His presence reignites the flames of Pine’s indignation of the man, leading him to become an informant for a spy agency and destined to become an inside man.

As an introduction to this world of high stakes espionage, The Night Manager moves blessedly slow, assuring a low-burn of taut intrigue that steadily threatens to flame up without ever getting there. The stage is set, the players introduced, and the setting established. Little more than this, but tiny hints of what’s to come are peppered throughout. The brief interactions between Pine and Roper are laced with layers of deception and foreshadowing, as Roper seems like he might just remember the name Pine and Pine seems keen to hope Roper never puts two and two together.

Director Susanne Bier (who’s taken the task of directing all six episodes upon herself) has done a masterful job at translating and updating the novel by John Le Carre, writer of many of the modern masterpieces of mystery. There’s a sense of deliberation found within every scene, every shot that captures the magic of Le Carre’s prose as best as can be done within a visual medium.

Applying the auteur theory to television is a relatively new concept, especially for Americans, but it’s one that’s gaining traction with every passing year. More and more, directors are choosing to put their personal stamps on their television output, which seems to be doing nothing but increasing the esteem in which you can hold a television series.

And I hold The Night Manager in the highest esteem. This is a series that highlights everything currently wrong with the mystery genre on television by doing everything right. The story is in no rush to tell itself, choosing instead to draw us in slowly with well-crafted and carefully considered characters and the events that surround them. If you’re like me and have gone ever weary of the barrage of indistinguishably familiar crime genres that currently occupy the airwaves, then The Night Manager is a breath of fresh, and original, air.

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